Before Billy Wilder became the screenwriter and director of iconic films like Sunset Boulevard and Some Like It Hot, he worked as a freelance reporter, first in Vienna and then in Weimar Berlin. Billy Wilder on Assignment brings together more than fifty articles, translated into English for the first time, that Wilder (then known as “Billie”) published in magazines and newspapers between September 1925 and November 1930. From a humorous account of Wilder’s stint as a hired dancing companion in a posh Berlin hotel and his dispatches from the international film scene, to his astute profiles of writers, performers, and political figures, the collection offers fresh insights into the creative mind of one of Hollywood’s most revered writer-directors.
Wilder’s early writings—a heady mix of cultural essays, interviews, and reviews—contain the same sparkling wit and intelligence as his later Hollywood screenplays, while also casting light into the dark corners of Vienna and Berlin between the wars. Wilder covered everything: big-city sensations, jazz performances, film and theater openings, dance, photography, and all manner of mass entertainment. And he wrote about the most colorful figures of the day, including Charlie Chaplin, Cornelius Vanderbilt, the Prince of Wales, actor Adolphe Menjou, director Erich von Stroheim, and the Tiller Girls dance troupe. Film historian Noah Isenberg’s introduction and commentary place Wilder’s pieces—brilliantly translated by Shelley Frisch—in historical and biographical context, and rare photos capture Wilder and his circle during these formative years.
Filled with rich reportage and personal musings, Billy Wilder on Assignment showcases the burgeoning voice of a young journalist who would go on to become a great auteur.
Awards and Recognition
- A Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year 2021
- Longlisted for the Kraszna-Krausz Book Award, Moving Image Category
- Longlisted for the National Translation Award, American Literary Translators Association
Billy Wilder (1906–2002) wrote and directed Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment, among other films. Over the course of his career, he won seven Academy Awards. Noah Isenberg is the George Christian Centennial Professor and Chair of the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas at Austin. His many books include We'll Always Have “Casablanca” and Weimar Cinema. Twitter @NoahIsenberg Instagram @noah.isenberg1967 Shelley Frisch is the award-winning translator of Dietrich & Riefenstahl and the three-volume Kafka (Princeton), among other books. Twitter @shelfrisch
"Among the gems of Billy Wilder on Assignment is the famous backstory about young Billie working as a dancer for hire, chronicled with sheepishness and brio by the man himself. In this enticing collection of Wilder’s journalism, we find him on the make, insatiably curious, unhampered by snob values, and finding plenty of nourishment in prewar Berlin for his famous sardonic streak. The reviews and interviews show the future director learning the trade, always with an eye to what works."—Molly Haskell, author of Frankly, My Dear: “Gone with the Wind” Revisited
"While it’s a given that Billy Wilder’s Weimar film reportage would be of great historical interest, his appreciations of such figures as Asta Nielsen and Erich von Stroheim are gems among many. Wilder’s youthful journalism proves to be as brash and cynical as—and even more entertaining than—one would expect."—J. Hoberman, author Film After Film: Or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema?
"Who was Billy Wilder before he became the director of brilliant, lasting films like Some Like It Hot, Sunset Boulevard, and The Apartment? He was a journalist, essayist, and critic for newspapers in Vienna and Weimar Berlin, serving up spry profiles and elegant, witty essays. These newly translated works are a delight, and editor Noah Isenberg is an equally charming guide, bringing to life the early career of a man who would turn into one of Hollywood’s funniest and most observant filmmakers."—Stephanie Zacharek, film critic for Time
"Billy Wilder’s background as a journalist had a direct relationship with his subsequent career as a celebrated director and screenwriter. This timely book—an eclectic mix of Wilder’s reviews, interviews, and glosses on metropolitan life—will interest his many fans and those fascinated with the Weimar Republic."—Gerd Gemünden, author of A Foreign Affair: Billy Wilder’s American Films
"Billy Wilder on Assignment offers a selection of charming prose pieces from the early years of the legendary movie director and screenwriter. These brilliant vignettes present a unique window into the fascinating and turbulent culture of Weimar-era Berlin, written by one of its wittiest observers. A pleasure to read."—Christian Rogowski, Amherst College